If Watergate happened here, guilty parties would still be off the hook

LATE on Tuesday of last week I got in to Dallas for the first time since I left there in 1973.

The big news that night was that Mark Felt, the former deputy director of the FBI had announced that he was Deep Throat, the man who guided Bob Woodward in exposing the Watergate story. I woke up next morning to find that Watergate was dominating television coverage.

G Gordon Liddy, Bernard Barker, Chuck Colson and John Dean - who all went to jail for their parts in the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up - were on television moralising and questioning the motives of Mark Felt.

Watergate was all over the television and newspapers, just as it had been in the final months of my stay in Dallas in 1973. It seemed as if it was part of the soap opera of the same name, and I had just woken up to find that the last 32 years had all been a dream.

The Watergate convicts were arguing that Felt was no hero. Chuck Colson accused him of “violating his oath to keep this nation’s secrets”, while Gordon Liddy accused Felt of having “violated the ethics of the law-enforcement profession”.

Coming from them, those allegations were rich.

John Dean, who had famously accused Alexander Haig of being Deep Throat, also got into the act.

There had been an orgy of speculation about Deep Throat’s identity for the past 30 years. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s closest aides, had confidently stated that Henry Kissinger was Deep Throat, while a 1993 book identified former President George Bush. Leonard Garment, another of the chief suspects, denounced Felt in the Wall Street Journal, noting that the former deputy director of the FBI was jailed in 1979 for having authorised illegal break-ins.

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative commentator, denounced the liberal media for ignoring Felt’s conviction, but the New York Times, Washington Post and the other so-called liberal outlets had mentioned it. Unlike the Wall Street Journal, however, they did not state that Felt had gone to jail - the Journal retracted that story a couple of days later because it was incorrect. Felt had only been fined, and Ronald Reagan subsequently pardoned him.

Some of Felt’s critics contend that had he come out publicly and announced what he knew in the 1972 election, he would have saved America from the trauma of the impeachment of Nixon. But maybe Nixon would have survived, because Felt only provided guidance to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post in the quest for a proper investigation. It was Judge John Sirica who forced one of the Watergate burglars to spill his guts, and this led to the full investigation.

If Felt had come out publicly in 1972, the presidential election might have been closer, but Nixon would have won anyway. Nixon carried 49 of the 50 states in the election, while his Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern, only managed to win Massachusetts. It was arguably the greatest electoral landslide since George Washington was elected unanimously.

Nixon’s supporters would have accused Felt of trying to influence the presidential election, and they would have ridiculed him.

Remember, nobody was actually bugged in Watergate. The whole thing was a failed attempt to tap the telephones at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. The real impact of the scandal resulted from the bungled efforts to cover the whole thing up. Nixon was not ousted for the break-in, nor for the attempted bugging, but for his obstruction of justice in trying to cover them up.

BEFORE Watergate erupted, telephone hotlines were installed linking the White House to the offices of the 50 state governors. One governor found that his line remained open to the White House, even when the phone was in its cradle, with the result that it amounted to an electronic bug. All of the hotlines were then checked and many were found to have the same flaw. But the idea that Nixon, or any of his people, would bug the governors was considered so preposterous that the issue was never taken seriously.

Nixon would have bugged anyone. After all, he had his brother Donald bugged, and he even bugged himself. It was his secret White House tapes that provided investigators with “the smoking gun”, a tape in which he had discussed covering up Watergate with his chief of staff, HR Haldeman.

The US Attorney General, John Mitchell, and Nixon’s closest aides went to jail for their part in the cover up, and Nixon became the only American President ever to be forced to resign.

It seemed ironic that it was not the rampant bugging of his administration but a botched attempt to bug a telephone that led to the greatest scandal in American history.

If that happened here, you might think that we would have set up a judicial tribunal, which would have cost millions as it investigated the thing interminably.

We would have found out more about it than anyone would ever wish to know, and we would have investigated for so long that nobody would ultimately be held responsible.

That might be what would happen now, but we had much the same thing in this country in the early 1980s. As Watergate swamped the story of the governors’ phones, the tapping of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold obscured what actually happened here.

On July 1, 1981, when the new Fine Gael-Labour government began its first full day in office, Government press secretary Peter Prendergast became intrigued with the telephone system in the Taoiseach’s office. There was a console with a number of buttons. The one that intrigued him most was marked “override”.

If the Taoiseach wished to join in on a telephone conversation, he could just push the override button. But what if somebody wished to join in one’s conversation uninvited - how would one know there was somebody else on the line? There was supposed to be a beep every so often to indicate the override was being used, but there was no beep.

Peter began experimenting and he found that if he dialled any number in Government Buildings and it was busy, he could listen in to the conversations undetected by merely pressing override. The telephones of every member of the Oireachtas and the other people working in Leinster House were effectively tapped from the Taoiseach’s office.

Jim Mitchell, the Minister for Justice, was informed and a garda investigation was launched. The telephone system had been installed in 1980 during Charles Haughey’s first term as Taoiseach, but they could never find the engineer who modified the telephones so that the beep was removed and a user could listen in undetected. The discovery of the override capability remained a closely guarded secret for little over a year until Jim Mitchell broke the story in July 1982. But, as in the United States, the story never took off.

Part of the problem was that Mitchell obviously leaked the story for political purposes. He waited for a year and then announced it during a Dáil by-election in Galway. People talked about it for a few days and then dismissed the whole thing as an election gimmick. The identity of the telephone engineer who doctored the telephones remains a greater secret than Deep Throat. But then, has anybody ever really bothered to look for him?

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